Game Day: Nebraska vs. Illinois

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2-Minute Drill by Sam McKewon

Nebraska rush offense vs. Illinois rush defense

The Illini have the worst run defense in the Big Ten, giving up 240.3 yards per game and a whopping 5.74 yards per carry. Illinois coach Lovie Smith, a great defensive mind, has taken over after his defensive coordinator resigned, but there’s only so much Illinois can do with a young roster. Nebraska’s run game — paced by Devine Ozigbo and an improving offensive line — should top 200 yards. If Illinois adheres to its Tampa 2 principles, it’ll keep both safeties back from the line of scrimmage, creating opportunities for NU to run the ball. Look for quarterback Adrian Martinez to have at least one long run, and maybe more.

Nebraska pass offense vs. Illinois pass defense

NU’s pass offense finds ways to make big plays, either by great play design or great individual effort. Wind and cold may play a factor Saturday. Illinois' pass defense is vulnerable to big plays — allowing 8.6 yards per pass attempt — but it's second in the league with 13 interceptions. The Illini linebackers, often dropping in pass zones, have four of the 13 picks. Martinez will have to be smart with his intermediate passes. The short, quick throws to JD Spielman and Stanley Morgan should be there, as should crossing routes underneath the zone defense.

Illinois rush offense vs. Nebraska rush defense

The Illini have a true “big play” rushing attack. The up-tempo, spread option system tries to get linebackers and safeties crossed up and out of position. Running backs Reggie Corbin (9.07 yards per carry) and Mike Epstein (6.85) are among the best athletes on Illinois’ team, and quarterback AJ Bush, while not a burner as a runner, has enough elusiveness and speed to be an effective zone read quarterback. Nebraska’s run defense can be stingy thanks to a decent interior line, but opponents tend to have success over four quarters when they commit to the run. Illinois will definitely stick to the ground.

Illinois pass offense vs. Nebraska pass defense

Illinois had a nice day passing in a 55-31 win over Minnesota, but it has otherwise struggled in Big Ten play, completing just 53.5 percent of passes. Bush has always had inconsistent passing mechanics and doesn’t always hit the short routes on time or receivers in stride. Big receiver Ricky Smalling is the guy to watch, especially in the red zone, but Nebraska’s defensive backs should have success Saturday. Illinois is converting just 34.15 percent of its third downs and has allowed 21 sacks this season.

Special teams

Hard to favor Nebraska when it keeps inventing ways to stink on special teams, like nearly whiffing on an onside kick and getting a punt blocked. Illinois is nothing special on special teams — its return teams are poor and it allows healthy kickoff returns — but senior kicker Chase McLaughlin is one of the Big Ten’s best. That’s the difference.

Intangibles

Nebraska’s energy is good as it heads into the final three games of its season. Illinois — not as much. Even with a win over Minnesota, there’s a question for the Illini as to whether the program is making much progress, especially on defense. NU has home-field advantage and the early start, too. And though quarterback is very much tangible, Nebraska has the better one.

Key matchup: Illinois’ third-down offense vs. Nebraska’s third-down defense

The Illini rely on big running plays to score points. Absent those, they’ve struggled to string together a lot of long, consistent drives because they can’t complete passes on third down. NU's hideous third-down defense has improved, and Ohio State only converted 3 of 9 last week.

Our take

Every Nebraska fan before the season had this game circled as a win. It still is. The rebuilding phase of the Lovie Smith era continues, though Illinois has shown some improvement this season. Winning two Big Ten games is better than not winning any. But Nebraska has better players. It has the home-field advantage. It has a dual-threat offense. It has Martinez. Even if Illinois busts off a few runs — count on Corbin topping 100 yards — NU should have every answer necessary for the win. If not? The Husker fan base won’t be pleased one bit.

Our prediction: NEBRASKA 42, ILLINOIS 24

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Game notes

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